Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 5: “The Ambulance Has No Tires”

For Part 4, click here

Jolly was still unconscious in the hospital.  I’d been there 6 hours at this point.  Finally at 3:30am, I went to pick up David so he could relieve my shift.  I crawled into bed in the District Health Officer’s hotel and slept for 4 hours, then woke up to return to the hospital and try to arrange an ambulance.

When I arrived, the Sister from the school was already at the hospital with tea and chapattis.  The doctor was also there.  Happily, she informed me that Kaabong had two ambulances.  (Yes, two ambulances for the entire sub-county of 400,000 people).  The ambulance ride would be free—we would just need to pay for the fuel.

Unfortunately, the ambulance that was parked in the hospital parking lot did not work, we were told.  Instead, they would have to bring the second ambulance from another town nearly two hours away.

In the meantime, David and I went to the police station to make our official statements… as well as to make arrangements for releasing the van so we could bring it back to Kampala for scrap.

After two hours, we returned to the hospital hoping to find the ambulance had arrived.  It had not.  When we reminded the doctor of our need, she called the ambulance driver, only to learn that unfortunately that ambulance would not be available after all—it had no tires.  Why it took the driver two hours to find out this crucial bit of information, and why he never called earlier to let us know, I have no idea.  So there was no CT scanner, and now there was no ambulance.

Only as it turns out, there was.  When the doctor heard the news, she shrugged and said, “well I guess we’ll just have to use the one from this hospital.”

I stared at her.  “I thought you said that one isn’t working.”

“Well, it works, but it doesn’t have any fuel.”


The medical staff had considered two options—bringing an ambulance of questionable road worthiness from a town two hours away, versus buying fuel for the ambulance that was sitting there in the parking lot—and decided the two-hours-away ambulance was the better option.

“So why don’t we just go buy fuel?” I demanded incredulously.

“You see, it does not have ANY fuel,” the doctor explained, as if this somehow satisfied my question.  “So we can’t drive it to the petrol station.”

I stared again.  “Well why don’t you give me a jerrycan and I’LL go buy fuel!  We’re the ones paying for the fuel anyway!”

The doctor considered my suggestion for a moment, and, seeing no problem with it, agreed that it would work.  She called that ambulance’s driver to come to the hospital, while I set out for the fuel station.

But David had a better idea.  After all, the Super Custom had been filled recently, which meant there was about $80 of diesel in there—and it would only be siphoned off by the police if we didn’t take it.  We certainly didn’t want to lose any MORE money.

So instead of heading to the fuel station, David and I traveled back to the police post with a hose, a jerrycan, and a plastic wash basin.  David found the release valve underneath the fuel tank, and after a few minutes of tinkering, the smelly liquid was trickling into the basin.  From there we transferred the fuel to the jerrycan, brought the jerrycan to the hospital, and poured the fuel into the ambulance, using the cut-off top half of a water bottle as a funnel.  The driver turned the key, and the ambulance rumbled to life.  Almost time to go!

But the ordeal was not over yet.  Upon entering the hospital to gather our remaining things, we encountered the owner of the hotel the installers were staying in (slightly cheaper than the one owned by the District Health Officer).  He was demanding to know the whereabouts of one of his rooms’ blankets.  We couldn’t lie, one of us had taken it to the hospital, since the hospital did not have extra blankets for patients’ caretakers.

Dutifully we produced the blanket, but the hotel owner was outraged.  “You cannot take the blanket in there!” he fumed.  “Don’t you know there are BED BUGS?  These hospitals are not clean places!  This blanket cannot be used anymore—you will have to buy me a new one.”

Conveniently, the hotel owner also owned the only shop in town that sold blankets.  And he wasn’t doing us any favors just because one of his customers was nearly dead in the hospital; he wanted the full UGX 80,000.

Now that’s only about $30, but our cash reserves were already low from having to pay the tow truck, and I still needed to set aside much of what I had left to top up on fuel once we got to Kotido (where fuel is 10% cheaper than Kaabong).  There IS one ATM in Kaabong, incredibly, but it had not worked the night before, and I wanted to take no chances with the cash I had.

But our pleading fell on deaf ears, and the hotel owner continued to refuse us the courtesy of one of his blankets.  Another vulture looking to make a buck.

Again, the Catholic sister from Komukuny Girl’s School came to our rescue.  She was well-known in town, and, critically, could speak the local language on our behalf.  She pulled the hotel owner aside and chatted with him softly for a few minutes.  Her words were magic.  Before long he had softened, and eventually he relented.  In the end, the only compensation he needed was for us to buy soap to wash the blanket; from there he would dry it in the sun and then keep it in a hot car for a few days to kill the bed bugs.  That Catholic sister helped us so much; I am not sure how we can repay her.

So now, the blanket affair was sorted out.  The ambulance had fuel.  And the driver had arrived.  FINALLY it was time to set off.

In typical African fashion, no resource is left under-utilized, and the ambulance was no different.   Today it would be carrying not only Jolly, but another patient who needed to go to a missionary hospital in Napak for leg surgery (not exactly ON the way, but only two hours OUT of it), as well as the patient’s caretaker, a nurse, two other passengers who simply needed a ride, and all our luggage.  It was 3pm at this point, and Mbale was an 8 hour drive.  It was past time to get moving.

Continue to Part 6 >>


One response to this post.

  1. […] Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 3: Totalled Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 5: “The Ambulance Has No Tires” […]


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